The television channel, full-color magazine and awe-inspiring Jurassic dinosaur exhibits were so far in the future the technology hadn’t even been invented yet. Did anyone dream how influential it would be when the Smithsonian Institution was created August 10, 1846? The Smithsonian has survived and thrived in its 170-plus years, now encompassing 19 museums and one of the world’s foremost research centers for science and the arts. But its original funding came from such an odd source and its creation was debated for so long that it’s fairly amazing it got going at all. How’s this for a random beginning? The Smithsonian was created by a man who willed his entire estate to the United States for “at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.”  This man was English. And he had never visited the U.S. or made any contact with a soul who lived in America.

An oddball bequest funds the Smithsonian

Londoner James Smithson was a chemistry and mineralogy aficionado and founding member of the new Royal Institution of Great Britain. He was also the illegitimate son of the first Duke of Northumberland. In 1819, Smithson’s brother left a handsome estate to Smithson. That will stipulated that the estate would next pass to the brother’s son. As his own death drew closer, Smithson wrote a will whereby the money would go to this “Smithsonian” endeavor if that nephew died without heirs. When Smithson died in 1829, an American newspaper editor spotted this clause in his will published in the Times of London. So when the nephew died in 1835 with no heirs, it was game on. But it took a long time to get the red tape worked out. The U.S. federal government had to debate whether it had the standing to accept this unusual bequest. Then Congress held it up for another eight years trying to decide what type of institute to create. Finally, President James K. Polk signed the legislation that fateful August 10. As for Smithson, his ties to the U.S. became closer in death. His remains were reinterred in the Smithsonian building known as “the Castle” in 1903.